Friday, June 27, 2014

Camp Fearless



My son, Alexander, went to Sleepaway Camp this week for the very first time.  I agreed to this with some serious hesitation.  It’s not just that he’s eight and never spent a night away from home on his own before, it’s that he absolutely needs to fall asleep with the light on, is deathly afraid of any insect, even the smallest gnat, and is a little OCD about things like icky, sticky things on the floor or sink.  So I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle Lights Out!, or a night spent sleeping under the stars where all manner of creepy crawlies could brush up against him in his sleeping bag, or a shared sink where other kids might inadvertently squirt toothpaste on the ledge.  Hazards, hazards, everywhere and my sweet son full of fears.  I told myself that the camp was only an hour from home so in the event of a disaster (i.e., your son refuses to sleep without a light on and we just can’t accommodate this), I could always dash up to fetch him.

On Sunday, when I dropped him off at his cabin, I helped him make his bed and unpack and then we stood there, eyeing each other.

“Okay,” he said.  “You can go.”

Go?  He wanted me to leave, just like that?  He didn’t want me to stay and help him get acclimated?  Check under the bunk bed for centipedes, check the four corners of the ceiling, and the center, for spiders?

“Really,” he said.  “Go.”  His hug was brief; it told me that he was ready to begin his adventure and didn’t want any lollygagging sentimental mushiness.  It was a hug that told me he might not be afraid of this at all.  I wanted to cry as I left him standing on the porch of his cabin, because I was so proud of him that he was jumping into this week of being away from me, from home, from everything that was familiar and safe on his own, with self-assurance.  When I walked away, I had to keep myself from looking back for him again and again, to let him be.

Two days into the week and I received a letter from Alexander: “I’m having a great time at camp.  I wished you could’ve sent me both weeks.  How are you?  Please write back!  I love you!”  No need to fetch him home.  No hint of any troubled waters.  In fact, according to my son, things were going so well, that he wanted to stay another week!  Which meant: 1. He was sleeping without a light on (something he’d never ever managed to do); 2. He was either wearing a full suit of mosquito netting or he’d somehow, perhaps through the pressure of his peers, realized that full-on terror at the sight of a gnat was a bit silly; and 3. He’d managed to live with the fundamental messiness of a cabin full of boys.  Which really meant he’d faced his fears and walked through them to the other side which was freedom, and in this case, was a week of canoeing and archery and swimming and arts and crafts and camp fires and ghost stories and messing around with a gaggle of eight year old boys.

But Alexander hasn’t been the only one away at Sleepaway Camp.  I’ve been at Camp On My Own, too, for the past 5 ½ weeks with 1 ½ to go while my husband has been away on a teaching gig in Greece.  It’s been the kids and me for all that time, except for the one week that they’re at Sleepaway Camp when it’s just me—or me and the two dogs and two cats.  This is the first time in my entire life that I’ve been on my own for this long.  A ridiculous thing to admit at almost (next week!) 42.  But it’s true.  I left my parents’ house and went off to college where I was in a relationship for 4 years and when that ended, within a week, I met my husband and we pretty much moved in together within a week or two—and that was when I was 22.  Sure, there have been a few days here, a week there, when I’ve been on my own when my husband or I have been traveling, but never this amount of sustained time. 

When I first contemplated being on my own for these 7 weeks, I panicked.  How would I manage the kids and all of the meals and the giant house and its upkeep and all of the animals and their upkeep, not to mention my upkeep by myself?  How would I stay on a stable path?  Listen to the healthy sane voice and not give space to the voice that likes to do me in or lure me over to the dark side, where I believe the worst about myself, believe that I am inadequate, a failure, incapable of living the life I’ve been given?  How would I hand the nights alone, the silence?  Not having another adult—my friend, my constant companion—in the house to talk to, to check-in with across the day? 

This was my dark room, my spiders, my ooze on the floor.  I was filled with fear.

Then it happened.  I kissed my husband goodbye at the airport and he went away.  I got back into the car with the kids and turned around to look at them, and said, “Okay.  Now our adventure begins.”

And it has been an adventure.  There are things I’ve had to do that I would have run to my husband to fix.  An exploding pipe under the sink.  Bats invading my house—I even caught one in a net!  Me!  And even released it outside against a tree where it crawled up and away (thank god). Broke up a fistfight between a bunch of teenage girls.  My car breaking down en route to my grandmother’s funeral on I-80.  Fan belt snapped and tension pulley seized up while I was going 75mph.  But I calmly guided the almost un-steerable car to the side of the road and called AAA—all without dissolving into tears.  Not to mention keeping the house in general working order, keeping all the animals (including an extremely geriatric dog who seems to be on the verge of her 9th life), healthy, including keeping the kids healthy and most importantly happy.

I can do all this and still feel whole in myself.  I haven’t fallen apart because I’ve been alone.  The silence and loneliness haven’t decimated me.  In fact, the opposite has happened.  For the first time in a long time, I get to be the sole decision maker.  I don’t need to check-in or compromise.  I go to bed when I want to, wake up when I need to.  Eat what I like.  Keep a schedule that I like.  Watch what I like on TV, or don’t watch anything at all.  I don’t have to be afraid to be with myself, to be alone with myself because now, as opposed to a few years ago when I was aiming to destroy myself in most any way possible, now, I’m good company.  Of course, I’m looking forward to my husband’s return, his body curled up next to mine on the couch at night in front of the TV. when we watch a movie together, working in the kitchen together on a shared meal, the give and take of conversation, but Camp On My Own has shown me that I, too, can be fearless.   

     

Friday, April 25, 2014

I Don't Shatter Anymore




Once upon a time, I might have thought I was fragile, like a delicate, antique porcelain vase with cracks running through its sides, balanced precariously on the edge of a side table.  Throw in a couple of crazy eight year old boys whooping it up, running circles around the vase, threating to send it crashing to the ground.  How about someone filling the vase with water and jamming it full of flowers, the water and stems pushing against the cracks, pressure building and building from that pretty innocuous bouquet. 
That was me, ready to crash and implode at the slightest bump, the smallest bit of pressure.  And I did, often.  My Bipolar Disorder and Anorexia and drinking were so out of control that everything seemed overwhelming, and I was in and out of the psych hospital, a person unrecognizable to myself, more than twenty times in five years.  Possessed by the furies, if you want to be mythic about it.  In fact, things were so horrifically, desperately, unfathomably out of control, and I was so inexplicably beyond reach of conventional help, that a friend who was an ex-priest elicited the help of a priest and they actually performed an exorcism on me while I was in the psych ward, bible, holy water, rosary beads and all! 

That’s how bad it was: I mean, who has an exorcism?  What tongues was I speaking in?  How fast was my head spinning?  Certainly I don’t believe I was actually possessed by The Devil.  But I do believe I wasn’t myself for those long, insane years.  I was possessed by this crazy other self that now feels so foreign to me—a self that was so intent on self-destruction in any and every way possible.  Now, much of that seems like an incomprehensible, distant, fuzzy dream—which may be the result of all the prescription drugs I’ve take over the course of all these years, or the Electric Shock Treatments I was given which erased much of my memory of those years. 
But it is difficult for me to see myself as the woman who was strapped down in an isolation room with her arms all cut up; or the woman in the hospital medicated to the point of drooling in an attempt to quell her mania; or the woman who had her bathroom locked in the hospital because no one would trust her not to throw up her food.  That seems like another woman, not me.  A woman I can feel compassion for, but a woman who scares me because that can’t have been me—really?

But of course that was me.  I don’t need to remind myself of that—I have scars crosshatched on my arms to prove it.  And here’s the thing: while my past scares the shit out of me it also serves as a warning to me about what could happen again if I become complacent in my recovery.  But my past, too, is a testament to my strength.  I am not fragile.
I am learning to override fragility and its attendant fears and reach for strength and its courage when I watch my son ride his bike.  For the past two years my husband and I have been trying to teach my son to ride his bike—but my son refused, terrified of falling, of speed, of imagining whatever biking demons he dreamed.  Finally, in a firm, concerted effort and force of will, we taught Alexander over the course of a few days last month, and Alexander fell in immediate love with biking, and now insists on biking whenever possible on a nearby trail.  Of course, his skills are still shaky but his courage is insane!  He loves to go fast and bike while standing up.  My instinct is to yell at him to “Slow down!” and “Watch out!” and “Be Careful!” to be the harpy, the killjoy.  And yet, he’s wearing his helmet (something I never had as a kid), and he’s on a paved trail (no cars), so he’s moderately safe—and he’s not fragile!  He’s a kid seizing happiness and feeling courageous and strong.  And I have to let him go.

Watching Alexander, I know having come through my years of possession intact, and in fact, stronger for it, having survived myself, I know that I can survive anything that this life might throw at me.  I don’t shatter.  Not in any way that can’t be put back together again. 

         

Thursday, March 20, 2014

International Day of Happiness: How Will You Be Happy?


 
 


Today, March 20th, the first day of Spring, is also the International Day of Happiness!  Of course, here in Meadville, I woke up to snow, which did not, unusually, impede my own personal happiness index—like the country of Bhutan which has an official National Happiness Index (really! They track and promote happiness!)—because I have decided to use an overabundance of exclamation points today in celebration of this happiness holiday!  A way to push myself out of the gray and into the gratitude. 

How do I feel happy today?  Let me count the ways.  I am happy that the house has grown momentarily silent after the pell-mell rush of the kids off to school.  I am happy that I’m about to practice my headstand—and I’ll achieve liftoff for a few seconds, something I wasn’t able to do even last week.  I’m happy I am continuing my meditation practice; it is a brief, sane spot at the beginning of the day that serves as my anchor.  I’m happy that I’ve managed to maintain stability now for a long, peaceful stretch of time—it brings me hope and joy.  I’m happy that my daughter seems happy in her group of friends and secure in her own self.  I’m happy for my son who has finally started to sleep in his own bed—just a week ago he didn’t believe he could do this and was despairing that he’d be the only kid still unable to sleep in his own room, so this accomplishment is HUGE!  I’m happy for my husband who was just yesterday promoted to Full Professor, a distinction he’s worked long and hard for.  I’m happy that I feel secure in myself, and no longer feel frayed and empty but feel bound and full.  And happy that there’s another load of laundry to fold—all those small—but getting bigger!—socks to match up.  And happy to check-in with my husband mid-day by phone just to see how things are, nothing in particular, just the sound of his voice.  And happy to pick the kids up from school, and listen to their rush of chatter in the backseat, their bickering, too.  And happy to go to my Recovery meeting tonight because it is a recovery meeting and my days keep growing.  And happy to come home after that to the family that’s mine.

How will you be happy today?     

 


Happiness

            --Jane Kenyon

There’s just no accounting for happiness
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day


to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.


No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What I Learned On My Winter Vacation: Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti




Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat: Proper Exercise, Breathing, Diet, Positive Thinking, and Meditation. 

These are the words that greeted me on the welcome sign when I arrived at the ashram in the little boat taxi in the Bahamas a few weeks ago on my solo vacation journey.  Even though it only lasted five days, I still call it a journey because it pushed my boundaries and asked me to grow in ways that longer, month-long trips to Greece or Italy haven’t. 
The last time I was in the Bahamas I was twenty years old, on Spring Break with a bunch of women from college and our primary objectives were to get tan and get drunk.  We alternated our bikinis, along with the beer and rum drinks, but remained devoted to the brilliant sunshine and the college boys on the beach.  On my boat taxi ride in to the ashram, the driver asked if I’d ever been to the Bahamas before, and while I said “yes,” I might have well said, “no,” because I remembered nothing of the island.  On my previous trip, my twenty-four hour buzz obscured the landscape, kept me confined to the designated Spring Break hotels and nightclubs, locked me inside the tunnel vision of alcohol. 

This time?  The ashram forbade alcohol so that made it easy.  And I was almost three years sober which made it even better.  And miraculous.  Because I would not have been able to go on this journey three years previous.  I mean, this was the Caribbean.  And just down the beach from the ashram was The Atlantis where they served all kinds of kitschy alcoholic drinks in coconut shells with umbrellas and swirly straws.  But who needs The Atlantis?  I could have had drinks on the plane.  Or in the airport.  Or back at home when my husband was out walking the dogs.  I could have been drinking all along. 
But I wasn’t.  And I didn’t want to.  Which was why I was in that little boat taxi all by myself in front of the Welcome Sign.  In fact, the ashram’s welcome sign seemed to be the Anti-Spring Break Welcome Sign.  The exact thing to ward off the debauched, the over-inflated, the drunkards, the carousers, and the degenerates.  In fact, it seemed to be a welcome sign that was meant to target all of my own struggles, past and present: over-exercise, anorexia, depression, self-recrimination, and mania.

And had I been inside the dark cocoon of depression and crippling self-doubt, I couldn’t have done this, wouldn’t have stepped off the boat.  But I was ready for adventure, ready to feel uncomfortable, to feel out of place—no that’s no it—to feel out of my place. 
So I walked down the dock, holding my tiny carry-on suitcase, not wanting to drag it, to make any rattling, undue noise.  The ashram full with people—Krishna Das, the Yoga Chant Rock Star was in residence for the weekend—so it felt overwhelming.  I knew, if I wanted to, I could disappear—what IT was telling me to do—“Nobody will want to know you.  You’re just a pretender.  You don’t belong here.”  All my insecurities surfaced.  Funny how even at 41, I could feel like I was 12 again. 

Which meant I had to fight twice as hard to remember it wasn’t the 6th grade anymore, and that I had the power to shape my experience and that I was free of all that old baggage.  I didn’t pack any of that shit in my carry-on—I only packed what was truthful and loving.  Oh yeah, and my yoga mat, too. 

I was ready to do this on my own.  Four hours of chanting every day, starting with a 5:30 am wake up gong; four hours of yoga every day, plus my bonus Meditation Course I’d signed up for because I’d been trying to work meditation into my life unsuccessfully on my own for the past few years and only wound up irritated by my inability to sit still for more than three minutes, at my mind’s seemingly inability to stop cataloguing all the things it would rather be doing than to empty itself and find a quiet spot of NOW, at my body’s inability to stop twitching and itching and yearning to break free from easy pose.  I wanted to find out if it was possible to be taught—in the five days—to move one inch closer to a meditation practice or if I was just a hopeless case of manic monotony.

This is what I discovered on my journey:
Proper Exercise:

Yoga = Asana ≠ Power Yoga: At home, my yoga practice is certainly not power yoga, but it is more closely allied with exercise.  I tend to do yoga on my days in between running as a form of cross training.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the spiritual benefits associated with breathing between the poses, with the symbolism of the poses—reaching for sun, being grounded in the earth, giving myself over in savasana—with the mindfulness that I reap in the practice of yoga.  But if all I did in a class was, say, tree pose and savasana?  I’m not sure I’d continue.  So it came as great surprise to me when the instructors at the ashram kept emphasizing that the yoga/asana classes were one of the primary paths towards a meditation practice.  In fact, the asanas (poses) selected were building blocks for meditation.  Each two hour class was structured in almost exactly the same way, with the same sequence of poses, emphasizing not the more physically aerobic standing sequences (the warriors and lunges) that I’m used to, but more devoted to shoulder stand, fish, bow, wheel, and headstand (my nemesis). 
Initially, I found myself getting frustrated over the quieter pace.  Heck!  I wasn’t even sweating in the Caribbean heat!  But then I realized this was exactly what happened when I sat down in my previous attempts to meditate: I wanted time to speed up; I wanted to be up and moving.  I mean really?  What was the point in sitting down wasting valuable energy when I could be doing something more productive?  So these yoga classes were invaluable.  In a matter of days, I’d return to my more “energetic,” diverse classes, but for the moment, I needed to yield to the NOW and to the mat of the moment.

Breathing:
Outside of the Pranayama (breathing) structured exercises we did at the beginning of the yoga classes, I found myself giving my whole breathing being over during the long formal singing chants we did at dawn and at night that would often last for an hour of longer.  The chanting became almost a regulated heartbeat with a call and response feel, and I would often close my eyes and without really caring whether or not I was getting the words right, I would breathe deeply and sing my part, and feel swept up in the rhythmic tide of it all.  Every now and them, self-consciousness would fall away.

Once, I skipped dawn Satsang (chanting), and went, instead, for a solo walk down the beach.  I was alone in the best way with myself, breathing in the blue waters and the just risen sun.  There was nobody on the beach to see me—so I was nobody—except who I was to myself.  At the moment, I was happy—I didn’t really miss anyone or need anyone or want anyone.  I was content simply as is for the now, breathing in the sun and sea.
Diet:

The basic?  The meals at the ashram were lacto-vegetarian (no meat or eggs), and were delicious and abundant.  Homemade granola, fresh fruit, soups, bean lasagna, zuccinni layer cake, sautéed beets, homemade breads. 
No caffeine.  There was a Starbucks down the beach at The Atlantis that some participants would sneak off to for their morning and afternoon fix (even though we all had to sign an agreement not to imbibe in caffeine, alcohol, or illegal drugs while at the ashram).  It would have been so easy to have followed suit, given my obsession with Lattés.  And perhaps, the me of a few years ago—the me who liked to lie and sneak around, filching drinks of other kinds--would have snuck up the back jungle path to Starbucks rationalizing that it was only coffee.  But now?  I’m an all-in kind of gal, these days.  And one coffee would have ruined my karma.  I would have been a liar, the great pretender, if only to myself.  So fennel tea and water for the five days.

And speaking of diet, I ate like I was ravenous, something I wouldn’t have done on my own a few years ago.  Just three years ago, I was in an Eating Disorders inpatient hospital, refusing to eat, having to have every bite I took monitored.  And now?  Here I was wearing a bikini, not really worrying about how I looked in it, and eating to my stomach and heart’s content.  Which speaks to the next category…
Positive Thinking:

In my meditation Course, we had to come up with a personal mantra that we could use if we got restless (me!) while sitting in meditation.  So I thought about one of the most beautiful things that we bring back with us from Greece: a sea urchin shell.  I thought about how when you’re snorkeling above on the surface and you look down, all you can see are these forbidding creatures carpeting the rocks and sea floor, glittering with their black spines.  Those spines are their best defense, keeping everyone else away.  But then, of course, when they die and those spines fall off, those beautiful round, delicate shells are beneath.  So I thought about sea urchins, when I was thinking about my mantra, and I began to whisper, “Beneath the spines are beauty.”  Because often, I feel like that—my prickly exterior gives way to something delicate and beautiful beneath.  And then as a follow up, I said, “I am joy, I am joy, I am joy.”
Meditation:

Everywhere and all the time.  I practiced and practiced without knowing I was.  At Satsang, yes, of course, while chanting.  But in yoga class while moving through my asanas.  And walking along the beach at dawn.  And while eating, and enjoying the food and being present for the joy of the meal with strangers.
My meditation station.  This is what I was instructed to construct at home.  A formal place to meditate—someplace to hold my gaze and energy.  So I did.  A low shelf on my nightstand that I can sit in front of, and—I do.  I’m up to ten minutes.  On the shelf?  A photo of my children to remind me of why I am part of this world; a picture of the Buddha, for his wisdom and serenity; a clay dragon my daughter made for me when I went to the hospital once—she called it my “healing dragon,” and a sea urchin shell—that thing of beauty.  

   

 

   

          

Monday, February 3, 2014

Arctic (Bipolar) Depression and the Dance Cure


 
 
Current conditions indicate that I am in an arctic depression and the weather system is not budging.  In fact, it is causing ground conditions to destabilize: my brain’s atmosphere is gray and bleak; the horizon seems more like a flat, unscalable wall than one where there is sunrise and sunset each day; and each morning, after sending the kids off to school, I crawl back into bed because I can’t bear the thought of fighting my way through another day.  Of course, guilt gets me out of bed within the hour, but I resent getting out of bed, getting in the shower, going to the gym, doing all the things that are supposed to make me feel good about being alive.
I know, I know, I know.  I’ve been here before.  Bipolar depression takes me down this difficult, harrowing path several times a year, so I am well-schooled with that fact that I will eventually come out on the somewhat sunnier side.  But that doesn’t make the waiting game any easier.  Add to this that it truly is the deep well of Western Pennsylvania winter, which means most days are gray days, and the snow piles deep and cold, and temperatures are frigid at best.  As a result, I feel like one of those fifteenth-century peasants, all bundled up in layers, teeth chattering, dour and irritable, waiting for some sign that the sun and Spring will return but doubting it ever will.  No wonder I take to my bed.

And then there’s my newest diagnosis of Hypothyroidism due to my Lithium which might be a partial cause for my low energy and depression, as well as a recent inexplicable weight gain (guess what that does to Eating Disordered thinking that still hangs on).  So my doctor has just prescribed a new med which will hopefully help, but I’m not holding out for any miracles, but that just may be my negative arctic depressive thinking talking.  Maybe this will help turn my thinking around lickety-split and that horizon will suddenly reveal the sun rising in full glory.
But not all is doom and gloom.  What I’ve learned over the years is to push myself forward even when I’m stuck in the ditch on the harrowing path getting sprayed by icy slush from passing cars.  I have to otherwise I might give in to the temptation of the numbing cold, my toes and feet and fingers and hands losing all sensation, passing through the pain, giving into the pleasing seduction of freezing to death.  What I did instead was danced.  The other night for over two hours at a party without caring what I looked like.  Without giving into my self-conscious censor.  Giving into joy and abandon instead—the most effective counterweight to depression.  I danced to crazy 80’s songs and songs that just won Grammys and songs that told me to shake my ass.  By the end, my hair was damp and my back was sweaty and I was very, very happy.  And for two mornings in a row, the horizon has been a little closer and I haven't felt so much like crawling back into bed.  Maybe the weather system is lifting...just a little.  

   

 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Strong, Sober, and Sane




Strong, Sober, and Sane.  These are the three words that I want to define my path in 2014.  Words I’ve been working my way towards—separately—for the past few years, but have been too small of vision, too timid to put them all together into one big AND for myself.  I can be all three, all at once.  I don’t have to do strong or sober or sane one at a time, piecemeal.  That’s for wobbly-kneed wimps.
Take today.  I signed up for my first Half-Marathon ever.  13.1 miles.  Sure, I’ve run 10 miles before, so another 3 miles more doesn’t seem like it should kill me.  But I’ve always been pretty tired at the end of 10 miles—on the point of giving up—and the self-talk has been desperate (“Please, please just another fifteen, ten, five feet and I won’t ever make you do this again?  Well, maybe in another week, but it’ll be easier next time.  I promise!”)  But here’s the thing: the fact that I can ever sign up for this race means I’m a radically different person than I was two years ago.  I’m strong—and by this I mean my body is come-back-from-the-dead-strong.  Once upon a time, I was only living to become weak and weaker still, starving and purging in an attempt to disappear.  I wouldn’t feed my body, so my body ate itself.  People looked at me and were afraid that I was going to collapse.  I was strong then, but strong-willed, stubborn, and irrational.  Now, when people look at me, they’re no longer afraid that I’m going to blow over or pass out at the track—except maybe when my face turns bright red from exertion, which I can’t help.  I love the feeling when I’m working out with free weights and lifting them over my head, doing barbell curls, and crazy kettlebell, twisty sit-ups, how something hard and tough and unbreakable is growing inside of me.  And every now and then that Eating Disordered Self pipes in and says, “You know that weightlifting will increase body weight, don’t you?”  And to that I say, “Fuck you!”  Because I’d rather be strong than weak, here than dead.

Sober.  I’m trying to extend this one beyond just alcohol to a more expansive understanding of the word sobriety.  To be sober means to be thoughtful.  And this is what I would like to be: a more forward-thinking, more reflective, more thoughtful person.  I don’t know if it’s the nature of being Bipolar, but my anger can be volcanic, my emotions run riot—at least when I’m alone or at home.  Out in public, I try to keep myself together.  I want to be like the women in those commercials that you always see standing in some doorway wearing a long white, flowy gown, hair blowing off their backs, holding onto a mug of tea.  They always look calm and content--one foot in the house, the other out on the beach.  And it’s early morning, too!  That’s what I’d like to aim for—an unruffled demeanor, a quietude, an ability to be present in myself without the need to rush around yapping at everyone else.
Sane.  What’s the expression?  The proof is in the pudding?  For the first time, well, in ever, I’m going on a solo vacation!  I am finally stable enough in my Bipolar Disorder to be able to venture out on my own for a solo adventure.  No overseers.  Ahem.  Caretakers.  Ahem.  Companions.  Just me on a mini-immersion in February for few days at a Yoga Ashram in the Caribbean.  Granted, nobody in the family would have been willing for mandatory 5:30am chanting and yoga classes and vegetarian food (not to mention ixnay on the caffeine and tent sleeping), but to me, this will be heaven!  And the only reason I get to do this is because I’ve maintained stability, kept my bearings together, fought IT off, been proactive in seeking out help when I’ve needed it, and kept my recovery front and center.  There are weeks when I forget that I was once the women located in an isolation room in the psych unit sleeping on a mattress on the floor, where I once wandered the psych unit so overmedicated I could barely tell you my name, where I was told by a psychiatrist that I was a hopeless case.  That was just three years ago.  You can read about that woman if you go back to the beginning of this blog—she’s there, and desperate and angry and scared.  But I’m not there anymore.

Strong and Sober and Sane.  That’s how far I’ve come and it keeps getting better.             

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Courage to Come Home




“The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility, and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before.  If you can live through it than you can live through anything.  You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.”

                                                                                                                --Eleanor Roosevelt

 
Someone should sound a Tibetan singing bowl because it’s been a long time since I’ve had a genuine crisis.  No five-alarm fires, no emergency response teams, not even an Epi-pen.  This period of relative peace and stability, while welcome, is uncomfortable as it feels unnatural.  I’ve been living for so long on high-alert status, waiting to implode or dissolve, living with a twitchy vigilance that refused all calls to put down my arms.  Take a deep breath and relax?  Pretend that I’m okay?  That I won’t derail at any moment?  That stability might in fact be more than a fantasy?
And yet, here I am, single-parenting again for a week while my husband is away for work, not just getting through it, like I might have once done—mood unstable, exhaustion dogging me, feeling flattened by the effects of barely managing, and castigating myself for being the universe’s worst mother—but thriving through it.  I’ve happily managed to get my son through one of his busiest and most important weeks of his life—he was in a college production of Medea; we all generally ate and slept well (snuggled up in bed together); we kept to a routine as it suited us and when it didn’t, we had pancakes for dinner; and I didn’t lose my shit as much as I used to when I was alone and in charge—I let things slip and slide.  My assessment this time around?  A pretty damn good mother.  Maybe even the best mother for my kids.

It takes courage to get through a week of single parenting.  For any parent on their own.  Much less a parent with Bipolar Disorder.  I can admit this now.  Before, I’d shrug.  Big deal.  It’s just a week, a few days, even a few hours.  What the hell do I have to worry about?  Feel overwhelmed by?  But when mania is running high or depression is drowning you, those hours alone and in charge might as well be years.  The voice of IT comes in, berating you for not being a good enough mother, telling you that your children would be better off with you dead, that you should save them from the scourge of yourself.
I am learning about courage from my son, who just might be one of the bravest people I know.  This Fall, he was on a soccer team and he was one of the younger, smaller, less advanced players.  He didn’t score any goals or make any big plays the entire season.  Nor was he Mister Sunnyside Up either.  He came home from many practices and games pretty down on himself, talking about how he was the worst player out there, how no one passed to him, how he would never score a goal.  And yet, despite what my daughter called his “self-esteem problem,” my son went on that field every week charged up; he refused to be intimidated by kids who were bigger or better than him, and he never stopped wondering, if maybe this wasn’t the game he might score a goal.

What does stability bring?  It has brought me two gifts this week that, had I been spinning in chaos, I don’t think would have come my way. 
Two days ago, I was contacted by Bipolar Hope Magazine—they want to interview me for an upcoming article on the pleasures and perils of traveling with Bipolar Disorder.  Obviously, as a frequent traveler across time zones, I can probably offer my useful two cents.  But what seems miraculous to me is the fact that I will be considered an “expert” in a publication with the words “Bipolar” and “Hope” together.  That I am now considered a voice of “Hope” for this disorder when not so very long ago I considered myself hopeless—indeed, I was even told I was hopeless.  And to be “out” in such a publication as one of the “Hopefuls” is for me an act of courage as it suggests that I am a believer—one who has a forward-moving future.   

And then just yesterday, I received a phone call from a woman in my 12-Step Recovery group asking me if I might be her guide through the 12-Steps.  A kind of quasi-sponsor as I’m not in town enough or available enough to be a full-blown sponsor.  This scares the ABSOLUTE SHIT out of me.  That she sees me as far enough along in recovery to help her in her recovery.  That she doesn’t see me as someone in crisis, someone headed in a downward spiral, but sees me as a beacon of hope, as someone who embodies courage.  Part of me wants to take back my “Yes.”  Because what if it all does go to shit again?  What if I fall apart again?  What if I fail her as I fail myself?  But this “Yes” takes courage, doesn’t it?
This “yes” is the “yes” I learned from my son this past weekend while he performed in his play.  It was amazing to me to watch him each night.  Of course, he’d spent the past several weeks rehearsing with the college cast, but still—he’s only eight years old and it was a real stage and the audience was packed.  Every night I’d drop him off at the dressing room with the other cast members and he would give me a quick kiss goodbye. 

“I’m fine!  I’m fine,” he insisted.  “Go!”
“Break a leg,” I said, and left, my heart swelling and aching.

I sat in my seat and watched the play, waiting for my son.  When he came on stage, he was so self-assured, so inspired, and without fear.  And I could see that he knew he had found his place in the world.
This is what I’m learning in recovery and through stability—to find self-assurance, inspiration, and to live without fear.  And as I’m finding it, I know I’m coming home. 

 

   

   

Friday, October 25, 2013

Bipolar Bad Hair Day





I am having the mental health equivalent of a very bad hair day.  Nothing so serious that requires hospitalization or even a call to my doctors, but really, I look in the mirror, and everything looks out-of-whack, frizzy, frumpy, out-of-style, unfixable even armed with the very best hair products that money can buy.  It’s moments like these that I might impulsively buzz all my hair off—and of course, regret that move tomorrow.  Better hide under some enormous hat and wait out the grotesque, restless, hopeless uglies, right?  After all, my favorite musical as a kid was “Annie,” and I used to annoy my entire family with renditions of “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow”—belting the song in my warbly, screechy voice, believing indeed, at nine years old that it would always and forever keep getting better and better.
Today started, most indulgently, with a quasi-day off.  The kids have a day off from school, so the schedule shifts.  No need to rush out of bed, no need to run at top speed, no hustling everyone out to door, no need for me to try to stick to my own self-imposed schedule of working on my own writing which is then followed up by a run at the gym. 

Nope.  This is how Bipolar Brain works.  An extra hour in bed.  The upended schedule (I stay home with the kids, forfeiting my work, hence my quasi-usefulness/productivity for one-day) leads to existential meltdown.  As I was lying in bed debating whether or not it was even worth getting out of bed, I wondered who, besides my kids would even care if I did?  Who was even expecting me to get out of bed?  No one.  This is Black and White thinking in the extreme—though it is shot around the edges with realistic thinking so it does try to makes its case, hence its powerful pull.  From there I ricocheted to: Would anyone care if I ever wrote another story?  Would I care?  And really, what did my writing add up to in the end?  Nothing much—and if I was going to amount to anything as a writer, it should have happened by now.  I had my chance and wasted it.  Look at me.  Just think about how hard it is now trying to get words on the page, struggling with memory lapses and word recall because of the ECT—is it worth the trouble? 
And just as I was beating myself up about this, I get an email on my phone from my agent.  My most recent story she’s been sending out for submission to magazines has been rejected again.  I know, I know.  You need a thick skin to be a writer.  And I have one.  But this is the fifth time this story has been rejected, and I was just so so so hoping for just a little lift. Just something to remind that, Yes, this is still my path. 

Instead, the rejection coincided with my contemplating whether I should just give this all up because I’m mostly just professional laundress anyway these days.  That and cleaner of the cat boxes.  I feel like my thinking brain has been switched off and I’m on automatic chore pilot.  That I’m purposeless beyond maintaining the house and picking up the kids from school.  Aimless.  Am uninteresting even to myself. I get why all those housewives in the fifties downed Martinis and valium.
When I was a kid there was this enormous brick wall near my house.  I used to take my tennis racquet and a ball and spend an hour whacking the ball against the wall as hard as possible.  I’d go there when I was bored, angry, or frustrated and I’d just pick a spot on the wall and aim the ball right at it.  Sometimes it was a face or a burning red hole.  It never failed to help ease whatever I was feeling. 

I wish I had a wall, a racquet and a ball today.  I think I could spend a few hours there.     

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Testing, Testing, Self-Compassion




Self-compassion—the ability to have self-empathy, self-directed kindness and understanding.  Apparently something I lack in spades.  My new (and fabulous) psychiatrist, Dr. D., has me working on self-compassion exercises, and even had me take a test measuring my self-compassion.  The result?  One of the lowest scores possible. 
When I think of a kind, encouraging voice—or at least my kind encouraging voice offering Hallmark variety affirmations?  I want to walk across hot coals.  Beat myself with a stick.  I remember once, on a Catholic weekend retreat in High School, we were given buttons that said, “God don’t make junk.”  I cringed, not only at the grammar lapse, but at the sweet-sickly sentiment of it.  I didn’t want something that could fit on a button—I wanted to be convinced by route of hard-earned, persuasive argument.  Not the soft shoulder pat. 

But I also know that all I tend to given myself are jarring shoulder smacks.  I don’t know any in-between.  I don’t know the gray.  I only live in the black or the white.  The land of exteremes.  The highs and the lows.  Which is what lands me in trouble.  Maybe it’s time to begin to practice self-compassion.  One way in which I’m constantly berating myself all day long is over the fact that I am Bipolar—or mentally ill, about being what other people sometimes label “crazy” because this is the label that echoes in me, that reverberates in me, that makes me question whether it was the ethical to allow myself to fall in love, to get married, to have children—to pass on my particularly destabilizing genetic flaws.  “Why did you?  How could you?”—this is the background white noise that plays all day—or at least is part of it, anyway.  Nothing compassionate about that.
See why it’s so hard for me to be compassionate?  I try to say the word and the anti-compassionate backlash begins.

But I will try.  So.  Maybe a separate, friendlier font will help.  And maybe a separate friendlier me, a “you” addressing me will help, too:
Do you remember a few months ago when you were looking for a new psychiatrist and you called the one recommended by your old doctor and before he would meet with you, he asked to see your records?  And then he finally called you back.  Do you remember what he said?  He said he couldn’t see you because you were too much of an “extreme case,” that you were too “mentally ill,” for him to treat.  And maybe if someone only read your records, only saw the objective line notes in a case file, an unattached observer might state that you are “beyond help,” or as another previous doctor told you to your face, “beyond hope.”  But don’t you see how the life you are living proves that you are not only able to be helped by others and able to help yourself, but that you are also living out hope?  You tried to die several times over but you are still alive, so there must be some greater reason for you still being here.  And maybe your mission has shifted from what you had hoped it would be, but that’s okay.  Did you ever really care what anyone thought of you? 

Do you remember your nickname as a kid?  “Crazy Kerry”  Kids called you that because you acted crazy—amped up—unable to pull back—unable to calm down.  Probably the early signs of bipolar hypomania.  But perhaps a telling nickname, one that might have been cutting then, one that might have stung, but one that you could use now as the way into anchoring your identity for good—for GOOD.  You didn’t DO ANYTHING bad to deserve this diagnosis.  You didn’t do anything to deserve becoming bipolar.  You didn’t do anything to deserve getting traumatized and sexually assaulted.  You didn’t do anything to have the genetic predisposition for alcoholism.  You didn’t do anything to have to genetic predisposition to become anorexic.  You aren’t inherently wrong or defective.  You aren’t meant to be taken out of commission because you are not operating at perfection.  Or your idea of perfection. 

“Crazy Kerry”—things haven’t been “right” from the get go.  You didn’t make some devastatingly wrong turn or decision at some crucial juncture—i.e., if only you could go back and right the wrongs.  This disease doesn’t work like that.  It works inside the brain from the start, incrementally.  It has always been.  In preschool you have always been.  In first grade, you have always been.  In sixth grade, you have always been.  Just at varying degrees.  “Crazy Kerry.”  NOT Oh, all was perfect, until one afternoon, at fourteen, you had a bad depressing, manic moment and cut your arm and that was that and if only you could do it all over again your life could be perfect.

The only thing wrong?  The people around you who responded—or failed to respond—who ignored, who didn’t recognize—or pretended it was not happening—who insisted that you lie about what you were experiencing—who demanded that hospital records be expunged—who created a façade for you to live inside.  Thus, your “real” experience, your “real” feelings weren’t to be trusted, weren’t acknowledged even by you.  It’s why the only thing that feels safe is the outside façade.  If everything looks perfect--the outside self, the outside life—then the inside self can be tricked into going on for just one more day.  The delay-suicide-pact that works for a bit. 

But everything doesn’t have to be so breathlessly scary anymore.  You don’t have to hide beneath perfection anymore.  You don’t have to keep suicide at bay anymore by running down the clock.  It is okay.  It’s going to be okay.  I know you don’t believe me.  But you don’t have to take care of yourself on your own anymore.  There might be people who truly care about you who want to help you that you can trust.    The kind of falling backwards with your eyes closed into their arms kind of trust.  The hardest thing for you to do.  But you can do this because you are loved.

 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bipolar Code Word: Go To Your Room


 
 
The other night, the kids and I were cuddled up on the couch watching “60 Minutes” and a segment came on about untreated schizophrenia and its links to most of the mass shootings in the past fifteen years.  In hindsight, I probably should have switched over to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” so we could watch babies launched across the room from sling shots or poodles riding skateboards, but all three of us seemed transfixed by the expert psychiatrists’ testimonies on symptoms of schizophrenia and the history of the treatment of schizophrenia and how schizophrenia could be better treated. 
To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about why my kids were so compelled by this segment until Sophia turned to me and asked, worriedly, “This isn’t the kind of mental illness that you have, is it, Mom?”

“Yeah,” Alexander said, “do you have this kind?” he kept glancing back and forth at the screen which shuffled pictures of the faces of recent shooters suspected of being mentally ill—D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Virginia.  Was he waiting to see if my face would pre-emptively appear?  His hand crept across my lap and found my hand.
“No, no, no,” I said.  “I have Bipolar Disorder, not Schizophrenia.  They’re very different from each other.”  Though not so different chromosomally.  Close cousins, really.  In fact, I’ve taken the same medications that Schizophrenics take, so I’m not sure how different we are, except for the hearing voices part.  Because in the horrific depths of depression and at the heights of mania I’ve had psychotic episodes and delusions.  But I don’t tell the kids this because I can see that they’re weighing the mental illness that they know their Mom!  Their Mom!!! has against the mental illness these mass shooters have and they want me to be as far and away different from them as possible.

“That’s right,” Sophia said.  “You have that one.  You have the mood swings one.”  She inched closer to me on the couch as if that would close the gap between what might be threatening about what was still unknown in my mental illness and what was known in her mom.  “Because,” she continued, “your mood swings can be really bad.  Sometimes you just get really angry at us for no reason.”
Alexander threw both his hands in the air.  “Yeah!  You do!  Like sometimes we’ll be sitting on the bed and you’ll just start yelling at us for sitting on the bed and we won’t be doing anything but sitting on the bed!”

I closed my eyes.  I might not have the voices of Schizophrenia, but I have the voices of punishment, of self-loathing, the voices that say: See?  This disease will ruin your relationship with your children.  It’s the wrecking ball, swinging through love, punching holes in walls, knocking out cross beams and support beams.
I opened my eyes and the kids were looking at me like I was crazy.

“I know!” Alexander said.  “Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go to your room.”
“Yeah,” Sophia said.  “When you feel a mood coming on, so you don’t take it out on us, you can just go to your room.  And then it’ll be okay.”

I smiled at them.  They weren’t really afraid of me winding up on that television screen.  They weren’t even afraid of my having a mental illness, of my being Bipolar.  All they wanted was a tool to help me contain it.  So they could help me help myself.  So they could feel powerful instead of powerless.
“I have an idea,” I said.  “Sometimes it’s hard for me to always know when a mood is happening.  I’m not always able to spot it right away.  But you guys are experts.  So how about we have a code word for when you think I need to go to another room for a time out and I’ll go?”

Alexander smiled.  “But we won’t use it if you’re angry at us for being crazy and we need to stop being crazy and calm down.”
Sophia said, “Or like we need to stop fighting with each other and we’re not stopping.”

“Right,” I said.  “It’s for when I’m getting angry or a mood swing is happening that has no good reason and maybe it’s scaring you so you think I need a time out.  So all you have to say is ‘Go to Your Room.’  Okay?”
They both nodded and we shook on it.  Then Alexander gave a great sigh of relief and threw himself on me in a hug.  I hadn’t realized my mood swings had seemed so scary? overwhelming? engulfing?  My own mother has a big personality with powerful emotions and I was able, as a child, to build a pretty good defense system constructed from concrete blocks and a dissociative moat.  I forget, sometimes, that my son, while not fragile, is more delicate—he’s like a butterfly or moth; his wings beating on the outside of his body for all to see and to be damaged.

And I forget that for my children, the wings they see beating outside my body are not the ragged wings of some storm battered butterfly, but the colossal wings of a Bipolar dragon, furiously flying into the heavens, then folding back for the dive down into the black well.  And just the day-to-day effort of keeping aloft?  Enough to make a mom tired and stupidly, unthinkingly angry.  Enough to know when it’s time to go to “Go to My room.”